General election to ‘pause’ government food waste activities

Activities regarding waste and resources will be brought “somewhat to a pause” following Tuesday’s announcement of a snap election, Resources Minister Therese Coffey admitted yesterday at a session of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee.

Coffey was appearing in front of the committee yesterday (19 April) to discuss the government’s approach to food waste, and reiterated Defra’s commitment to voluntary approaches to improve retailer and local authority performance.

General election to ‘pause’ government resource activities
Coffey appeared in front of the EFRA Committee with Defra Deputy Director of Waste and Recycling Chris Preston
Following Prime Minister Theresa May’s surprise announcement of a general election in June, Coffey said that she was not able to discuss any new policy considerations nor commit the government to any action past the next few months.

The main crux of Coffey’s discourse was the government’s resolute preference of a voluntary approach rather than any regulatory measures to improve performance.

Working with councils to improve collection

The minister, who originally appeared at an EFRA session that was cut short by last month’s attack on Westminster, ruled out the government implementing any mandatory food waste targets or statutory duties for councils to separately collect food waste, as has been done in Scotland, stating: “Recognising the different composition of our country we think it’s best to have approach where we work with councils and WRAP that best serves those local communities.

“We are not considering mandatory separate food waste collection but doing more work with councils to identify the barriers.” Coffey noted that a meeting to discuss a holistic approach on food waste with ministers was deferred this week due to announcement of the election.

As part of the voluntary tack, Defra is, she said, encouraging councils to be “more proactive” in how they undertake recycling initiatives, but that such activity will be brought “somewhat to a pause” by the upcoming snap general election. She added that in relation to waste collection she noted that it was deemed “not appropriate” to require a household to “have seven or eight bins”, suggesting it is akin to using “a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.

Support is focusing on urban areas, with landlords in London currently taking on a pilot on how to improve the collection of waste, particularly focusing on flats. “If we could make a huge different in Manchester, Birmingham and London that would really help the overall target.”

When asked about the long-term waste contracts being signed by many councils, tying them into services that do not enable developing trends or efficiencies to be easily adopted, Coffey was clear that outcomes should always be at the forefront of council decisions.

She said: “I was particularly disappointed to learn a couple of weeks ago that a county, which I won’t name, has just signed an extension to its contract that makes it difficult to do more recycling and I’m quite cross about that. If I’m still in this role after the election I’ll be following up with that county council’s leader because I think it’s not acceptable.

“I recognise the difficulties that some councils operate under, but to deliberately sign contracts which you know can’t improve the recycling is not good politics.”

Coffey ‘not convinced’ retailer transparency would help

Appearing before the committee in November, campaigners Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Tristram Stuart highlighted the need for supermarkets to be more transparent about their food waste if the UK is to make inroads on the six million tonnes of food that is currently unnecessarily wasted every year in the country.

Fearnley-Whittingstall suggested that the government should work towards mandatory reporting of waste data by retailers, saying: “Transparency is the only way that other policy elements, whether mandatory or voluntary, can be properly assessed. We need transparency across the board in all areas with which supermarkets are complicit in wasting food.

“Some part of the government has to own this problem in a more visible way. They need to work towards mandatory transparency – so much flows from that and makes it possible for both government and commentators to hold the food industry to account. With the right kind of action, we would see change.”

Dave Lewis, the CEO of Tesco, last year called for more companies to make their food waste figures public, following the revelations that the supermarket disposed of the equivalent of more than 119 million meals as food waste in 2015. Tesco had been the only supermarket to publish its waste figures for several years until Sainsbury’s did so in September. In light of UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 to halve global food waste by 2030, work has been ongoing at a global level to make it easier for businesses to track their food waste, with a Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard being launched last year and a report published last month by the Champions 12.3 food waste coalition finding that businesses could save an equivalent of $14 for every $1 spent on reducing food waste.

Indeed, at a previous EFRA session, Tim Smith, Group Quality Director at Tesco, told the panel that transparency is of the upmost importance and that having more supermarkets record waste at a category level (i.e. which specific kinds of items are being wasted) would enable the industry to identify ‘hotspots’ that can be approached in a unified way.

However, when asked whether the government would look into making major retailers publically report their data, Coffey replied: “I’m not sure what it would achieve. Especially when you consider the small percentage of food waste that comes from supermarkets.

“I’m not convinced that it would make huge changes in behaviour just because you publish it. Businesses will do things that partly will help the environment, but mainly will help their economics.”

The retail industry directly contributes two per cent of the UK’s annual food waste by weight, according to WRAP statistics, but, as the National Federation of Women’s Institutes noted this week when launching its ‘Food Matters’ campaign, which focuses on lobbying supermarkets to improve their performance and initiatives, supermarkets have significant influence on multiple facets of the supply and consumption chains including farmers, consumers and suppliers.

No action on redistribution

Similarly, Coffey would not be drawn on suggestions that the UK should look to follow France’s example in introducing legislation requiring large retailers to enter contracts with local charities and community groups to redistribute surplus food.

EFRA Committee member and former Shadow Environment Secretary Kerry McCarthy introduced a Food Waste Bill containing similar measures at the beginning of last year, but it was lost amid government preference for the voluntary path.

Coffey said that such an approach was unnecessary as “like for like in terms of population and the size of the food industry, we have redistribution on a comparable level. The food industry in France is a lot bigger, but I think we’re already achieving similar outcomes without regulation.”

She also suggested that providing tax breaks to stores that redistribute their surplus food, as Italy now does, was “not the best way to use tax relief”.

Work ‘progressing’ on labelling

One area that the retail industry could make a difference on food waste, Coffey said, was through labelling. In February, WRAP estimated that £1 billion of food waste could be saved to changes to labelling and food packaging, and Coffey says that work is “progressing” in this regard.

Though Defra’s intention had been for guidance focused on making labelling simpler for consumers to understand to be published by the end of 2017, the upcoming election has now delayed this.

The minister also noted that further lessons on retailer interaction with consumers would come from Sainsbury’s report on its year-long Swadlincote project, which is due in May.

This was the final evidence session of EFRA’s inquiry, and the committee intends to complete the report next week and will publish its findings shortly thereafter.

Video of Therese Coffey’s session with the EFRA Committee can be watched on Parliament’s online audiovisual service.

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